In the style of a war correspondent, Marine Corps Reserve Maj. Ricardo A. Crocker sent regular dispatches to his colleagues at the Santa Monica Police Department, e-mails and photographs of life on the battlefield in Iraq.
"Two Marines killed, several wounded," he wrote Aug. 21. "I was hesitant to write about this, however, it's the reality of this place. Everyone in the battalion is getting through this."
In the style of true friends, Santa Monica officers e-mailed encouraging messages, sent care packages to Crocker's division and kept a spot for him in the station where he worked: A life-size cutout photograph of Crocker in his combat gear stands in the detective squad bureau.
"It was like he was still here," Police Chief James T. Butts Jr. said Saturday. "We'd see his image every day. We'd read the e-mails."
On Thursday morning, Crocker, 39, a nearly 10-year veteran of the Santa Monica Police Department, was killed in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Iraq's Al Anbar province -- a vast desert region that stretches west from the cities of Fallouja and Ramadi to the Syrian border. It is now the epicenter of the nation's insurgency.
Crocker's death has been a tough blow for members of the department, Butts said.
It was Crocker's second tour of duty, "and the expectation was he'd be back, just like he was before," Butts said.
Family members declined to be interviewed.
Crocker, who was known as "Rick," was the son of a Navy veteran, Butts said. He spent part of his youth at the El Toro Marine base, graduated from high school in Maryland and then enlisted in the Navy. Later he joined the Marine Corps.
According to the Department of Defense, Crocker was most recently assigned to the 3rd Civil Affairs Group, Marine Corps Reserve at Camp Pendleton. As part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, his unit was attached to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward).
In 1995, Crocker was still in the service when he applied to become a Santa Monica police officer. Butts took the unusual step of holding the position open for six months until Crocker fulfilled his obligation to the Marines.
"He was just such a quality person, and it was one of the best things we ever did for the citizens of Santa Monica," Butts said.
In his latest assignment with the Police Activities League, Crocker was a mentor and role model to children, taking them camping and on field trips, helping to keep them out of trouble.
"A lot of police officers wouldn't consider that police work, but it is so important for the development of children ... to have a strong male figure to look up to, and Rick was that to hundreds of children at PAL," Butts said.
Crocker was a "complex and talented man," Butts said. He held a bachelor's degree from George Washington University and was a few classes shy of earning a master's degree from Pepperdine University, where he studied English and journalism.
During his first 15-month tour of duty, Crocker began writing the dispatches that kept him connected to friends and co-workers. They were written in the shorthand voice of a person in a hurry, but they gave a realistic look into his world: the mortars, the scrambles for safety, the deep concern for Marines under his care.
"Everyone is prepared to reposition," he wrote on Aug. 12. "Fallujah is getting worse ... attached is a picture with my view of the trip home ... about 5:30 a.m. (sunrise), with some black smoke flying over us from a power plant ... kind of surrealistic ... just like my time here in Iraq."
After his return in October, officers held a welcome-back celebration for Crocker, who told them how much the connection and care packages meant, Butts said.
Just a few months later, in January, Crocker was called to serve again. He felt that he was letting down the children he worked with by leaving, Butts said.
But he was a consummate Marine reservist, Butts said, so "there was never any doubt that he was going to serve and serve to his utmost ability."
"One of the things that was apparent was he loved those children just like he loved his country," Butts said.
In one of his most recent e-mails, Crocker wrote of several injuries and deaths caused by a land mine, a suicide bomber and an improvised explosive device.
"It's been tough on everybody ... feeling numb inside, tired," he wrote May 9.
Crocker, who was single and had no children, lived in Redondo Beach. He is survived by his parents, Curtis and Jeanette; a brother, Carlos; and two sisters, Maria and Marisa. A sister, Lisa, preceded him in death.
Services will be held Thursday in Santa Monica. In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the Santa Monica Police Activities League, 333 W. Olympic Drive, Santa Monica, CA 90401.